how to speak machine

how to speak machine

(2019) by John Maeda

intro’d via his jan 2020 newsletter: ‘How To Speak Machine: Computational Thinking For The Rest Of Us is out now as a kind of sequel to The Laws of Simplicity.’

final point in newsletter: ‘The 4th Industrial Revolution metaphor is starting to take hold. First generation was the steam engine; second generation was electricity; third generation was the computer; and fourth generation is the cloud. With each Industrial Revolution leap there’s been a different level of impact on the percentage of people on our planet.’





computation is an invisible, alien universe that is infinitely large and infinitesimally detailed. it’s a kind of raw material that doesn’t obey the laws of physics, and it’s what powers the internet at a level that far transcends the power of electricity. it’s a ubiquitous medium that experience software developers and the tech industry control to a degree that threatens the sovereignty of existing nation states. computation is not something you can fully grasp after training in a ‘learn to code’ boot camp, where the mechanics of programming can be easily learned. it’s more like a foreign country w its own culture, tis own set of problems, and its own language – but where knowing the language is not enough, let alone if you have only a minimal understanding of it

oh my math.. et al

*red flag if we think we need training


there’s been a conscious push in all countries to promote a greater understanding of how computers and the internet work. however, by the time a tech centered ed program is launched, it is already outdated.. that’s because the pace of progress in computing hasn’t moved at the speed of humans – it’s been moving at the expo speed of the internet’s evolution

since the landing of this alien life form.. it’s ruled by new laws that are governed by the rising temple of tech in a way that intrinsically excludes folks who are less technically literate

much like any language (as control/enclosure)

a new form of design has emerged: computational design.. these new kinds of interactions w our increasingly intelligent devices and surroundings require a fundamental understanding of how computing works to *max what we can make..

*maxing what we make..? not really a humanity thing

mufleh humanity lawwe have seen advances in every aspect of our lives except our humanity– Luma Mufleh

let go


so i came to wonder if i could find a way for more nontechie people to start *building a basic understanding of computation..

again.. *red flag if we think we need training

and then w that basic understanding.. show how computation is transforming the design of products and services..  for much of 20th cent computation itself useful only to military to calculate missile trajectories. but in 21st.. it is design that has made computation relevant to business and more so to our *everyday lives

? military/business.. part of the cancer..

*everyday lives..? perhaps everyday lives of whales in sea world

this book is the result of a 6 yr journey i have traveled away from ‘pure’ design and into the heart of what is impacting design the most: computation..


i have always believed that being curious is better than being afraid – for when we are curious we get inventive, whereas when we are afraid we get destructive..t

great insight.. let’s try focusing on just facil-ing daily curiosity  ie: cure ios city


perhaps i wrote this book for you.. perhaps you are one of the many who will find  way to wield the power of computation w inventiveness and wonder.. those kinds of heroes are now desperately needed in order to advance computation beyond what it is today in its super powerful, albeit running w the *conflicted conscience of a teenager, form.. being new to the computational universe, you just might discover something that we first gen techies have **not yet been able to imagine..

not so hip on the *teenager ref – who’s to say who’s more scrambled.. et al

**let’s try tech/computation/whatever..  as it could be..  ai as a means to augment our interconnectedness

1 – machines run loops

bratton new techs law and broken feedback loop ness.. et al


one thing a computer can do better than any human, animal or machine: repetition.. it doesn’t get bored/tired.. eager to please


the software is what comes alive inside the machine due to the program codes – ti’s the cake, not the recipe. this can be a difficult conceptual leap.. the distinction between software running on a computer w/in its ‘mind’ vs the actual program code being fed into the computer.. can free you from believing computer code is just code.. which on the surface is a ll you can generally see.. what computer code can represent is where the true potential lies.. we would say same for words on a page.. not actual words.. but the invisible ideas that underlie them..

after talking about originally we traded out software.. and now it’s the device (hardware) that gets traded out

and in the same way that you know how powerful your imagination can become when fed w the right literary fuel .. then your mind is empowered to do things you previously thought were impossible ..  an alt invisible consciousness instantly manifests..

william gibson (1984); ‘cyberspace, a consensual hallucination, experience daily by billions of legit operators in every nation.. by children being taught math concepts.. unthinkable complexity.. lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.. like city lights receding..’


trippy.. but accurate..  there’s a nether universe that computational machines can easily tap into that precedes the internet, and now because of the internet and the ubiquity of network enabled devices, that universe has expanded wildly beyond what any of the lucky nerds like me who were there at the beginning could ever have expected..


i’ve wanted more people to experience what digital consciousness can feel like.. because i believe to speak machine, you need to ‘live’ the world of the machine too. and, unfortunately, it is by nature invisible..

as we move forward thru the chapters try to keep gibson’s image of cyberspace as an apt rep of how native machine speakers collectively ‘see’ the invisible..


the first computers were no machines, but humans who worked w numbers.. a defn that goes back to 1613

1936 – turing’s paper ‘on computable numbers’.. turing invented ideas that underlie all modern computers.. but couldn’t be built w tech available then.. 10 yrs later.. eniac built for army would implement turing’s ideas


it is all too easy to forget that humans err all the time.. computation has a shared ancestor: us. and although historically most of our mistakes made w computers have been errors in straight forward calculations, we now need to come to terms w the mistaken human assumptions that are embedded in our calculation, like the countless omissions in history of the role of women in computing.

way deeper than that.. how about that we iterated ourselves right out of ourselves.. and into sea world.. rendering all the data we continue iterating/looping on.. illegit.. the cancer so blinding.. we now have no clue what a free/natural human being is like..


on recursion – a tree.. the part is defined by the part itself

fractal thinking – if recursive.. alive system.. iterate\ing on changes


recursion differs from the brute force expression of a loop which likes itself to more like a conveyor belt on an assembly it over again.. recursion is stylistically diff in nature where you define the task to be performed in terms of itself.. like laying out the steps to make a large pot of curry on an assembly line where one key ingredient is a smaller pot of curry.. you end up w an assembly line that vanishes inside the process of making the smaller pot of curry, which in turn will require a smaller pot of curry and so forth.. you simply disappear inside the thing you’re creating.. the central idea is to express the defn of something w a defn itself.. which is a vaguely imaginable idea that doesn’t have a home in the real world but is completely native in the realm of cyberspace..

iterate\ing ness


forms of elegantly expressing oneself in the computational world..  recursion is an unusually compact way to express complex ideas that can be infinite in nature and are deeply paradoxical..

michael corballis in his entire book on topic of recursion from a humanist’s perspective: recursion noun, if you still don’t get it, see recursion


if computer programmers became uncontrollably angry each time a piece of software crashed, they wouldn’t get any work done.. because software crashes a lot, you’ll tend to find that people who write software professionally have an unusually high tolerance for catastrophes while also having little tolerance for minor mistakes that could easily be avoided.

2 – machines get large


exponential growth is native to how the computer works.. so when hear people in sv talk about the future, it’s important to remember that they’re not talking about future that is incrementally diff .. they’re constantly on the look out of expo leaps.. .. knowing exactly how to take advantage of them because of their fluency in speaking machine..

not listening loud enough guys.. (as it could be)

we need a true leap .. for humanity.. and we’re missing it


referencing charles eames powers of ten film


computation has a unique affinity for infinity, and for things that can be allowed to continue forever.. which take our normal ideas of scale – big or small and easily mess w our mind

ginormous small ness.. zoom dance ness


complicated means something that is knowable, ..although it may take time.. it’s wholly possible to understand.. complex means something that is not knowable.. a complex machine ( think of any human being you have  relationship with) is not understandable.. i always find it necessary to keep this distinction in the foreground.. because how we make systems out of computation is generally complicated.. but how we humans relate to the computational systems we make has complex effects that we’re still figuring out..

complexity ness


coding can become extremely intoxicating.. so it’s not a surprise to me when i occasionally encounter discomforting behavior among the most technically fluent..  composing lines of code is an extremely creative task that intrinsically involves generosity thru sharing skills w others – it does not make you a bad person. but it definitely can change your perspective on the world around you if you aren’t careful


today i believe that spending too much time in the computational world is esp unhealthy for human relationships – because the people around you will start to seem trivial and literally living in a lower dimension.. t

we need to let go of any form of measuring/accounting

bateson measuring as managing law.. et al

3 – machines are living


we tend not to use the term ai because it carries some negative connotations form the past. instead, we prefer two terms to describe this newer kind of ai: machine learning and deep learning .. deep learning is a technique used in machine learning.. the traditional approach to creating ai was to teach a computer how to reason thru if then rules.. deep learning.. uses a model of the brain – neural networks .. to teach a  computer how to think by observing a desired behavior and learning the skill thru analyzing repeated behavioral patterns..  for it to work well, the computer needs to observe our behavior.. preferably constantly and interminably (endless).. dl wasn’t technically feasible due to the lack of succinctly large amounts of training data and the gargantuan processing power needed.. moore’s law has done the magic of brining us enough computing power to calculate almost anything.. we no longer need to explicitly teach it because it can just as easily teach itself w whatever data tit has on hand, and it can reach out to the cloud when it needs more data to get even smarter


machine learning expert andrew ng describes the problem not as one of questioning whether a computer will eventually become awakened as a superior life form, but instead of ‘if you’re trying to understand ai’s near term impact, don’t think ‘sentience’.. instead think ‘automation on steroids’.. looping, infinitely large computing machines ..excels at behaving like a zombie..never tires.. a mindless robot.. ‘ the new living machines work w far greater intelligence because moore’s law took us so far that unexpected things happened.. gpus led to a quantum leap in neural network processing power.. rate of error for image recognition going way down.. we’ll eventually not be able to detect an ai vs a human


art is the science of enjoying life.. thus, in order for customers to enjoyably live w products,.. co’s needed to involve artists in how their products were made

art can seem esoteric and irrelevant, and yet it is where i have found a pov that is fully compatible w the world of computation. because the arts are not about what you can just see or sense; they’re about discovering what underlies it all.. about understanding what lies at the essential core of anything and everything..


artists excel at making unlikely connections all the time..t

let’s do this firstfree art-ists.. (aka: all of us)

for (blank)’s sake

a nother way


does nature speak machine? or can machines speak nature? are we just machines? you’re certainly thinking like an artist if you are asking these questions too, because artists know to look deeper than just surface beauty. they dig for what’s underneath the underneath (geometry et al) and they will not rest until they find it..

art .. being human ness


will we figure out how to work w each other as fast as computers have learned how to work together, talking w each other and leveraging the full power of our collective intelligence? perhaps.. t

perhaps collective intelligence isn’t the point of human being..

perhaps.. but only if we can learn to listen to each other to start. if we can perfectly train computers to listen so well to us and so fully among themselves, should’t we be able to do the same for and with our fellow human beings

perhaps you’re still missing a key factor – perhaps our purpose for listening to each voice.. isn’t so that we all hear each voice.. or that we grow some collective intelligence by the convo.. but rather.. so that we get back to our original interconnectedness dance.. of ie: not even having to talk/use words..

perhaps let’s try tech as it could be.. to finally let go of our compromising/cancerous hierarchies of listening..


a few years after vinge’s paper (the singularity) was published, renowned inventor and scientist ray kurzweil went on e step further by writing a 672 page book on the subject of the singularity describing  how it might happen.. predicting computing power would surpass brainpower of a human by 2023.. this singularity stuff will come across as sci fi to anyone far removed from the world of computing.. but for ai pioneers like the late marvin minsky.. the singularity is just another big idea that is destined to happened

oh my.. published-papers = fact ness.. the revealing ness to those who don’t get things..

lit num as colonialism


i have been extremely lucky to be deeply immersed in the world of speaking machine for most of my life

lucky..? whales in sea world

today i feel an imperative in our need to rethink the implications fo computation in the design of new products and services, because we’re at a turning point tha twill irreversibly impact the future of humankind.. we are currently on course to reach the singularity in a completely inequitable way *for the many human beings who don’t speak machine.. 

so the answer.. is to teach everyone a bit of machine speak.. (aka.. further their whalehoodness in sea world)

*similar thinking to: pitying the kid who doesn’t get/fit-in school (who’s ‘undisciplined behaviors’ are actually a show of their strength to at least balk-at/question the supposed to’s.. of school/work); pitying the ‘poor/indigenous’ people (who only appear poor my our misaligned standards.. and/or because we keep ripping them off); .. in other words.. pitying anyone who actually groks more about life than we do.. and good evidence of that is that we won’t acknowledge them

4 – machines are incomplete


timely design is more important than timeless design.. agile, lean, scrum.. terms all essentially describe a computational philosophy dedicated to shipping an incomplete product followed by as many revisions as possible, instead of trying to ship a product that is complete


product development costs can be significantly lowered by making a choice to never ship a finished product.. you can always ‘replace’ the product digitally w a brand new and incrementally improved one.. remove all financial risk from investing heavily all the way to a finished product.. what’s more.. the ability to remotely monitor how people are using products means makers can nudge the product’s design toward whatever will work best for the end user


the computational products you’re most often using become cumulatively better each day, but you might never have noticed the improvements being made because the many incremental changes are compounded over time.. the cloud has made the pursuit of timeless design irrelevant – what matters instead is to be timely.. what matters more is to be evolving in real time and never stop.. and to seek bliss and satisfaction in a state of always being obsolete (out of date)

kind of like being alive

this might vaguely sound like a form of ‘planned obsolescence’… business strategy made popular by gm after the great depression.. tried to get consumers to upgrade their cars by making them feel like their current one had gone out of style and was no longer appealing.. strategy of preying on customer insecurities.. ran counter to ford’s .. long lasting value.. over time, planned obsolescence became known by environmentalists as an evil of capitalism because it resulted in consumers throwing away products faster to replace them w newer/better ones

so let’s make capitalism/money (any form of measuring/accounting) as the planned obsolescence ie: ubi as temp placebo..

but what makes software diff from the planned obsolescence of autos is the computational medium’s intrinsic property of being ‘always obsolete’ and just one update away, and w min environ impact, to be transformed into the newer/better version..  and you’ll pay to keep up


instead of carefully designed set of 50 or so slides.. (when i speak at conferences).. put my phone number on screen and ask people to text me any question they’d like me to address..  able to counter my bias to believe i know what my audience wants..  able to give them exactly what they want instead of trying to guess

well.. assuming they know what they want.. which is huge..

today we have the means to go there.. so why waste time going in front of an audience.. in any form

look at internet.. not finished

focus on products/design – with incomplete or not – is not the deeper issue..  kind of fractal to your questions in phone.. deeper issue is listening to every voice (curiosity) everyday.. and facil ing that..

daily curiosity  ie: cure ios city.. with 2 convers as infra.. via tech as it could be..

5 – machines can be instrumented


omotenashi roughly translates to ‘hospitality’ – japanese.. but it means much more than just making someone feel at home. it has to do w how people are greeted and sent off, how they are served, how well you can anticipate their needs and outdo their expectations

yeah.. i don’t think that has to do with well-being.. human-being..  ie: host ness..

hinking esp of invited to exist ness.. and invited vs invent ness and dave’s campfire analogy

how to make sure the gathering (in a space) we’re hosting is for everyone.. perhaps we first make sure it starts with 7bn curiosities (self-talk as data) .. everyday.. rather than a ie: campfire/course/whatever.. that even though open.. we get the whole leader/follower thing..

constant hospitality law .. hospitality .. oikos.. cosmopolitanism


underlying omotenashi is having an idea of what the customer wants w/o asking.. so that their needs can be anticipated

whales in sea world.. none of us currently have a clue what we want.. to we’re filling those holes with stuff that only begs we want more stuff..

like work as solving other people’s problems.. all backwards.. and killing us

let’s go with fittingness over ie: restaurant knowing what you want


disable third party cookies – allows services unrelated to sites you visit to park info about you


important to listen to regina dugan: ‘nerds change the world. be nice to nerds’.. and there’s a new kind of nerd in town yo’ll want to be esp nice to: data science nerds,.. data scientists

only problem is .. we keep focusing on the wrong data.. ie: data from whales in sea world.. we need to let go of all that big data.. and try self-talk as data.. for everyone.. everyday.. even the nerds.. even the ‘bad guys’.. if everyone is doing this and focused on this.. safety will become – as it should – irrelevant (ie: gershenfeld something else law)


harvard business review: data scientists most basic skill.. ability to write code.. less true in 5 yrs.. when everyone access.. more enduring will be need for data scientists to communicate in language that all their stake holders understand..t

nah.. let go.. code for idio-jargon .. and let go


but making sense of it (data) all requires an interp skill that we humans are still better at than machines

no again.. what humans needs to do is refocus on diff/legit data.. doesn’t matter how good machine/man gets at interpreting data .. if it’s non legit data


i’m reminded how all my smarts aren’t worth as much as listening carefully to people..t

yeah.. let’s just do that.. let’s just focus on that.. but it has to be all the people.. everyone.. every day.. ie: 2 convers as infra via tech as it could be..


nicholas negroponte famously posited this future of fully tailored customer care back in the 70s with his ‘daily me’ concept of a newspaper that was completely customized to just what interested you

deeper than that.. flip it from outside in to inside out.. ie: listen daily to what is of interest (curiosity) to you


6 – machines automate imbalance


ie’s of rectifying imbalance include ap computer sci exams having increases in female, black and latino students



this is the lesson of good ethnography: to understand a cultural phenom, you need to get as close as possible to first source info, instead of relying on second or thirdhand info..t

all our info today is 2nd and beyond.. it’s from whales in sea world.. listen deeper


machine learning feeds off the past. so if it hasn’t happened before, it can’t happen in the future  -which is why if we keep perpetuation the same behavior, ai will ultimately automate and amplify existing trends and biases..


it’s common practice in industry to make closed systems.. because when successful they provide the invaluable ability to exercise full control..t

literacy and numeracy as colonialism/control/enclosure


there is a downside to open source: there are no secrets to be kept anywhere.. there will always be a few bad actors who are always looking for ways to manipulate a situation in their favor for reasons that can only be explained as human nature..t

that’s not human nature.. that’s more like whales in sea world .. we have no idea what free human beings are like.. let’s try that

(ie: the reason it’s never worked in the past.. it’s never been about every one – won’t work unless it’s everyone)

let’s do this firstfree art-ists.

for (blank)’s sake

a nother way


my recovery took ten months in fits and starts, and i definitely did not transpire at moorean speed,. but i would do it all over again because the journey was absolutely worth it.. (noticing the people instead of tech)


never forget: mind the humans..

mufleh humanity lawwe have seen advances in every aspect of our lives except our humanity– Luma Mufleh

cooperations: working together independently; collab: working together dependently